Thursday, June 6, 2013

the right to offend is the heart of free speech

Censorship by governments and by private citizens has always about what offends the powerful, whether the powerful are princes, priests, or mobs. In internet slang, censorship is all about the hurt fee fees.

Today, liberal censors defend "hate speech" laws and speech codes, even though there's no evidence that they're more than a feel-good solution for complex problems, and there are many examples of them backfiring horribly.

But don't take this from me. A few better thinkers:

"The idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted is absurd. So too is the notion that people should have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted. ... The moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible." —Salman Rushdie, "Defend the right to be offended"

"During the year in which Michigan's speech code was enforced, more than twenty blacks were charged - by whites - with racist speech. As Trossen notes, not a single instance of white racist speech was punished. ... What you don't hear from the hate speech theorists is that the first casualty of the MacKinnonite anti-obscenity ruling was a gay and lesbian bookshop in Toronto, which was raided by the police because of a lesbian magazine it carried." —Henry Louis Gates, in "Critical Race Theory and Freedom of Speech"

"Feminists who oppose censorship…do not have another slogan, another quick solution, another panacea to offer in its place. We do have a comprehensive list of tasks we must carry out to bring sexism and violence to an end. Working on any one of these is more helpful—immediately, not in the distant future—than supporting censorship of any kind today, for these tasks get at the structural basis of sexism and violence, and thus insure that we will have a home." —Varda Burstyn, Women Against Censorship

From Hate Speech on Campus | American Civil Liberties Union:
Where racist, sexist and homophobic speech is concerned, the ACLU believes that more speech -- not less -- is the best revenge. This is particularly true at universities, whose mission is to facilitate learning through open debate and study, and to enlighten. Speech codes are not the way to go on campuses, where all views are entitled to be heard, explored, supported or refuted. Besides, when hate is out in the open, people can see the problem. Then they can organize effectively to counter bad attitudes, possibly change them, and forge solidarity against the forces of intolerance. 
College administrators may find speech codes attractive as a quick fix, but as one critic put it: "Verbal purity is not social change." Codes that punish bigoted speech treat only the symptom: The problem itself is bigotry. The ACLU believes that instead of opting for gestures that only appear to cure the disease, universities have to do the hard work of recruitment to increase faculty and student diversity; counseling to raise awareness about bigotry and its history, and changing curricula to institutionalize more inclusive approaches to all subject matter.
from Hari Kunzru's "Address to European Writers Parliament 25th November 2010":
The third area of concern for us as writers is the use of language to produce identity. In the European context this is particularly crucial, as the economic crisis is immiserating large numbers of people, who are  - as always in European history - turning towards xenophobia and atavistic nationalism in the hope of identifying an enemy more tangible than global capital.

It seems to me that multiculturalism, once a useful and progressive kind of politics, is no longer functioning as well as it did. The limits of identity politics are becoming clear. Instead of a playful, creative blending of the best of host and migrant cultures, the terms of multiculturalism are increasingly used by cultural conservatives of all stripes to police cultural boundaries. A liberal politics of absolute inclusivity, while presenting itself as pragmatic, has the disadvantage of obscuring genuine differences and antagonisms. Identity politics, which privileges categories like race and religion, is wilfully silent about class. Culture is, self-evidently, at the heart of this, and so we as writers have a central role to play. It sickens me to watch European bigots puffing up their chests about the values of the Enlightenment, as a badge of their superiority against poor and marginalised immigrant populations. Again, I say that opposition to this Enlightenment fundamentalism, isn’t moral relativism, but an ethical imperative. At this point, respecting difference is important, but so is asserting our common life across borders of race, class and religion. The fake pageantry of respect is no substitute for a genuine internationalism.

There are many weapons in the culture war, but chief among the techniques of policing thought and writing is that of offence. We are familiar with the use of the notion of offense by religious and ethnic minorities to gain identity-political purchase – from the Rushdie fatwa to the Mohammed cartoons, the martialling of sentiments of shame and abused honor have generated a lot of heat and not much light.

I believe that the right to freedom of speech trumps any right to protection from offense, and that it underlies all the other issues I’ve been speaking about. Without freedom of speech, we, as writers, can have very little impact on culture. In saying this, I’m aware that this is a prime example of a concept which has been degraded by the war on terror – that many European muslims misidentify it as a tool of Anglo-Saxon interests, a license to insult them, rather than the sole guarantee of their right to be heard.
Related: ACLU Weighs in Against Possible Ban on “Hate Speech” in University of North Carolina System - The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

Evaluating hate speech codes - Editorial in the Lewis & Clark Pioneer Log

ETA: “Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

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